Program Standard 5
5. Learning Environment – The teacher fosters and manages a safe and inclusive learning environment that takes into account: physical, emotional, and intellectual well-being.
5.1 Element – Creating an Environment of Respect and Rapport
5.1 Example of Proficient – Teacher-student interactions are friendly and demonstrate general caring and respect. Such interactions are appropriate to the age and cultures of the students. Students exhibit respect for the teacher.
Character education in schools is a matter of contention for a number of reasons. Some believe that it leads to the indoctrination of a narrow set of values while others simply object to it because they contend that it takes away from valuable classroom instruction on subject matter. However, Elkind and Sweet point out that it is deeply ingrained in schools without even being a part of explicit instruction:
Let’s get one thing perfectly clear—you are a character educator. Whether you are a teacher, administrator, custodian, or school bus driver, you are helping shape the character of the kids you come in contact with. It’s in the way you talk, the behaviors you model, the conduct you tolerate, the deeds you encourage, the expectations you transmit. Yes, for better or worse, you are already doing character education. (Evans, 2008, p. 336)
All of the aspects of character development that Elkind and Sweet speak of are a part of the hidden curriculum within schools. There is no way to avoid influencing the character of students and teachers should be cognizant of their effect on students so that they send the right messages.
How a teacher structures and manages the classroom will set the tone for how students interact with one another. If the classroom is an inclusive space where all opinions are valued then those students will understand that differing points of view in the classroom, as well as larger society, are not only acceptable but also beneficial. Those same students can be taught to disagree with respect which will inevitably influence how they interact with divergent viewpoints for the rest of their life. How teachers interact with students and the underlying lessons that are obtained from the discourse between peers will stay with them into adulthood. As such, teachers need to take the time to explore and understand their own unconscious biases so that those ideas will not unintentionally permeate the classroom. It is crucial that teachers hold students to the same high standard so that all students have the chance to rise to that challenge.
While character education is an inevitable part of schools because of the culture and the interactions that take place, it can also be intentionally integrated into the curriculum without taking away from instructional time. There are so many opportunities during English, social studies, history, science, and even math lessons where teachers can seamlessly work discussions of character into the discourse. Instead of explicitly instructing students on one set of values, educators can encourage them to explore their own viewpoints and develop their own opinions. Teachers can encourage differing perspectives while fostering and encouraging mutual respect between students. It is never the teacher’s job to impose ideologies on students but instead to allow them to explore their own beliefs in a safe, inclusive environment where each voice has merit. Students will benefit long after graduation if they have the skills to meet opposition with regard and dignity.